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EPA orders Virgin Islands refinery to shut down, citing ‘imminent’ health threat

The St. Croix oil refinery, senior EPA official said, is ‘not how a normal refinery operates’

Limetree Bay refinery has been under investigation by the EPA after a Feb. 4 flare spewed oil droplets over nearby homes contaminating at least 63 cisterns with petroleum. (Salwan Georges/The Washington Post)
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It didn’t take long for the Environmental Protection Agency official to discover the problem.

It was 7:10 p.m. on a Wednesday night. The EPA employee who had been deployed to the U.S. Virgin Islands to investigate an accident-plagued refinery emailed colleagues to give them the news: “there is oil on my windshield.”

On Friday, the Biden administration shut the plant down, citing an “imminent” threat to people’s health after several recent accidents contaminated St. Croix’s drinking water and left hundreds of people sick. In its 45-page order, the agency described the pollution’s impact in the words of its own employees who had come to stop it.

“The odor I briefly encountered was overwhelming and nauseating,” recounted another EPA staffer, who was coordinating the agency’s response on the island and inhaled gasoline-like fumes May 6. “I normally am suited up with respiratory protection and other [personal protective equipment] prior to being exposed to something like this.”

The rare move by the EPA, which has invoked emergency powers under the Clean Air Act only three times before, signals the extent to which the Biden administration has demonstrated its commitment to environmental justice.

“It means that voices of the people have finally been elevated to the point that they’re being heard,” said Frandelle Gerard, who directs the Crucian Heritage and Nature Tourism Foundation and has criticized the refinery.

The island where it rained oil

In a statement, EPA Administrator Michael Regan said the agency took the extraordinary step after Limetree Bay showered oil on local residents twice, spewed sulfuric gases into the surrounding area and released hydrocarbons into the air.

“This already overburdened community has suffered through at least four recent incidents that have occurred at the facility, and each had an immediate and significant health impact on people and their property,” Regan said. “EPA will not hesitate to use its authority to enforce the law and protect people from dangerous pollution where they work, live, and play.”

Friday’s order detailed multiple missteps at the plant that led to accidental releases of not just oil, but hydrogen sulfide and sulfur dioxide — both linked to respiratory illness — in the past few months.

On April 23, a sulfur recovery unit failed to capture hydrogen sulfide that was at one point 562 times the federally allowed limit. The agency concluded that during the first accident in February, a “knockout drum” that would have normally tamped down fiery oil droplets probably “were not designed with sufficient capacity.”

The move marked a sharp turn of events for a tourist hot spot that has nevertheless suffered the harsh impacts of industrial development for years. Since February, many residents have struggled to breathe at times as the stench of pollution invaded their homes, schools and offices.

For decades, the plant operated under a different owner during which it leaked over 300,000 barrels of petrochemicals and polluted the island’s one aquifer. The refinery — called Hovensa at the time — closed nearly a decade ago after settling a multimillion-dollar lawsuit with EPA as well as several class-action suits.

The failure of environmental regulatory agencies to more rapidly step in and protect the health of the people is a sad example of environmental racism,” Judith Enck, who oversaw the U.S. Virgin Islands for EPA as its Region 2 administrator, said in an email.

“This is a majority-Black island in a U.S. territory. It is located next to public housing. If this refinery were located most anywhere else in the country, it would have been shut down months ago.”

While the Biden administration has dispatched staff to the island and pushed the company to expand air monitoring, some St. Croix residents suggested during a virtual town hall Thursday evening that their own government had not protected them.

“Our children are suffering,” ChenziRa Davis-Kahina said. “This is becoming uncomfortable to a point that we have to put out a hashtag like, ‘We can’t breathe.’ We have to put out hashtags like, ‘Stop killing us.’ We have to put out hashtags to get people to hear what’s happening here in a place that’s supposed to be America’s paradise.”

Legal experts said it was highly unusual for the EPA to order an entire refinery, rather than just one part, to be closed while managers addressed safety failures that sickened hundreds of local residents.

On Wednesday, the company announced it was temporarily halting operations after an accident sparked a fire and sent a fine mist of oil over an affluent community to the west, polluting water supplies. The oil traveled several miles, reaching the airport as well as Sandy Point National Wildlife Refuge.

The firm said in a statement that it was investigating the incident and would cooperate fully with the EPA order. “We are committed to operating a safe facility. We sincerely apologize for any concern or inconvenience this has caused.”

The rapid succession of mishaps has turned the refinery into a national litmus test over how to weigh the fossil fuel industry’s impact on vulnerable communities. Along with an adjoining logistics hub, Limetree generates at least $25 million a year to the U.S. Virgin Islands government. With some residents questioning the competence of local leadership, Biden officials have scrambled to bring greater accountability to an area where industry has operated with little oversight for decades.

Eric Schaeffer, executive director of the Environmental Integrity Project, said in an email that the agency would invoke its shutdown authority “if that’s the only way to stop air pollution that is an immediate danger to public health.”

“The situation on St. Croix must be terrible if they are thinking about shutting down the island’s refinery,” he said.

At a virtual town hall, St. Croix residents spoke about the effects of the refinery on their health, and the EPA said it is taking action. (Video: St. Croix Foundation for Community Development)

After a gaseous leak May 5, the health department logged more than 200 reports from residents with complaining about the odor and its health effects, said Justa Encarnacion, U.S. Virgin Islands health commissioner.

“Nausea, vomiting, stomach aches, itching, irritated eyes and rash” have been reported, Encarnacion said. At least nine people visited emergency rooms “and we did see some individuals who went to their private providers as well.”

Tracking environmental actions under Biden

Jennifer Valiulis, the executive director of the St. Croix Environmental Association, lives about two miles from the plant and said panic sets in “when I get that first whiff of sulfur, and I know soon it will be painful to breathe, a stabbing headache will set in, and I will have to lay down because I feel sick to my stomach.”

EPA Region 2, which is based in New York City, recently dispatched staffers along with sulfur dioxide monitoring equipment to evaluate air pollution levels. It has assigned more than 40 people to work on the matter, including two contractors and three employees in St. Croix.

But the office’s acting administrator, Walter Mugdan, said during the town hall that the monitors were not yet functioning and that the agency would not be able to identify the level of contamination from past accidents “with precision.”

“What we’ve been seeing here is unacceptable,” Mugdan said, reiterating a tweet from EPA Regan on Wednesday. Limetree Bay, he added, “is not how a normal refinery operates.”

U.S. Virgin Islands Gov. Albert Bryan Jr. (D) and most other territory officials welcomed the restart of the plant, which had operated for decades under a different ownership, and Trump officials went to extraordinary lengths to ensure it could begin processing low-sulfur maritime fuel for BP this year. The two Limetree facilities employ more than 400 full-time workers, virtually all of them territory residents, and 300 contractors.

But the repeated accidents have ignited an outpouring of resistance from residents on the small Caribbean island, who argue they are paying the price for the territory’s economic engine.

Jean-Pierre Oriol, the territory’s planning and natural resources commissioner, defended the government’s handling of the matter and said it had pushed for the plant to shut down voluntarily after this week’s accident. But he added, “because of the history, it may take some time before trust is restored.”

U.S. Virgin Islands Sen. Samuel Carrion (I), one of the few local politicians to criticize the plant, said legislators appropriated $900,000 to $1 million to Oriol’s department for more staff and the purchase of equipment, such as monitors. “We know that Limetree is an industry that is providing revenue to the territory, economically. But we also understand, above everything, the importance of the health and well being of our people. And that comes first.”

U.S.

Atlantic

Ocean

Bahamas

CUBA

ST. CROIX

Caribbean Sea

400 MILES

ST.CROIX

Cruzan Rum

Distillery

Clifton Hill

Limetree

Bay refinery

Henry E.

Rohlsen

Airport

Sandy

Point

Reopened in February

after being idled for

nearly a decade

Caribbean Sea

5 MILES

Sources: Limetree Bay Refining LLC; ESA Sentinel

HANNAH DORMIDO/THE WASHINGTON POST

U.S.

Atlantic

Ocean

Bahamas

CUBA

ST. CROIX

Caribbean Sea

400 MILES

ST.

CROIX

Christiansted

Cruzan Rum

Distillery

Clifton Hill

Frederiksted

Limetree

Bay refinery

Henry E.

Rohlsen

Airport

Sandy

Point

Reopened in

February after

being idled for

nearly a decade

Caribbean

Sea

5 MILES

Sources: Limetree Bay Refining LLC; ESA Sentinel

HANNAH DORMIDO/THE WASHINGTON POST

ST. CROIX

Christiansted

Clifton Hill

Kingshill

Frederiksted

Cruzan Rum

Distillery

Henry E.

Rohlsen

Airport

Limetree

Bay refinery

Sandy

Point

Atlantic

Ocean

U.s.

Reopened in February

after being idled for

nearly a decade

Bahamas

CUBA

ST. CROIX

Caribbean Sea

Caribbean Sea

400 MILES

5 MILES

Sources: Limetree Bay Refining LLC; ESA Sentinel

HANNAH DORMIDO/THE WASHINGTON POST

ST. CROIX

Christiansted

Clifton Hill

Cruzan Rum

Distillery

Kingshill

Frederiksted

Limetree

Bay refinery

Henry E.

Rohlsen

Airport

Sandy

Point

Reopened in February

after being idled for

nearly a decade

Atlantic

Ocean

U.s.

Bahamas

CUBA

ST. CROIX

Caribbean Sea

Caribbean Sea

400 MILES

5 MILES

Sources: Limetree Bay Refining LLC; ESA Sentinel

HANNAH DORMIDO/THE WASHINGTON POST

ST. CROIX

Christiansted

Clifton Hill

Kingshill

Cruzan Rum

Distillery

Frederiksted

Limetree

Bay refinery

Henry E.

Rohlsen

Airport

Atlantic

Ocean

U.s.

Bahamas

Reopened in February

after being idled for

nearly a decade

Sandy

Point

CUBA

ST. CROIX

Caribbean Sea

Caribbean Sea

400 MILES

5 MILES

Sources: Limetree Bay Refining LLC; ESA Sentinel

HANNAH DORMIDO/THE WASHINGTON POST

On Friday, the St. Croix airport’s waiting room was filled with Limetree contractors heading home to Texas and Louisiana.

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